It Starts with One: A Reflection on Black History Month

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Every Black History Month, the media presents countless stories of the great and inspiring achievements of African-Americans.

The stories range from the traditional hallmarks of black history including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Harriet Tubman to local Cleveland icons such as former NAACP President George Forbes and the Stokes brothers, Carl and Louis.

But the most compelling story, for me, involves a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till. This young man, who went by the nickname Bobo, lived on Chicago’s South Side in a middle class black neighborhood with his single mother, Mamie Bradley.

In the summer of 1955, Emmett visited relatives in Money, Mississippi. On August 24 of that year, he reportedly flirted with a white grocery store cashier. Four days later, Roy Bryant, the cashier’s husband and grocery store owner, along with his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett from his uncle’s home. He was then taken to the bank of the Tallahatchie River where they beat him, shot him in the head, and disposed of his body into the river.

Three days later, Emmett’s corpse was recovered. His face was unrecognizable due to the mutilation and the effects of exposure to the water. He was identified only by his late father’s signet ring on his finger, which Mamie gave him before he traveled to Mississippi.

Emmett’s mother chose to have an open-casket funeral and to leave her son’s body in Roberts’ Temple Church of God on display for 5 days.

Her motive, she said, was to “Let the world see what had happened because there is no way I could describe this.”

Images from Emmett’s funeral later became iconic, spurring numerous books and documents and even a ballad by the great Bob Dylan.

Soon the nation’s attention turned to Money, Emmett Till Murder Front Page NewspaperMississippi to watch Emmett’s murder trial unfold. Despite his uncle’s couragous testimony, identifying Bryant and Milam as Emmett’s murders, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted both men of all charges after only 67 minutes of deliberation.

A few months later, Bryant and Milam sold their confessions of the murder and details to Look Magazine for $4,000. Double jeopardy laws prevented them from ever being convicted again after their acquittal.

The cold-blooded murder of this innocent young man, coupled with the perversion of the criminal justice system, galvanized the nation to demand change in the form of civil rights legislation.

One hundred days after Emmett’s death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama city bus. Her actions set forth the year-long Montgomery bus boycott.

Parks would later say, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.  Knowing what must be done does away with fear.”Rosa Parks - Civil Rights Activist

For so many of my clients, knowing ”what must be done” has given them the courage to bring claims. All of the many class action lawsuits I have handled started when one individual stood tall and said, “Something needs to be done.”

Henry David Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience, discusses our duty to recognize the wrongs of our society and take action to eradicate them.

In our modern society, those acts of civil disobedience result in lawsuits against those corporate entities that expose us to unnecessary harm and danger.

The story of Emmett Till and the legacy of the black civil rights movement inspire me and my clients to keep “fighting the good fight.”

Because, as Abraham Lincoln said, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”

And, we will protest.